Comparing coaching philosophies between codes in Irish sport


During my recent trip to UK and Ireland following attending ICCE Global Coaching conference, I was extremely fortunate to catch up and discuss coaching philosophies and ideas with some of the top GAA Football and rugby union coaches. I was lucky to catch up with:

  • Brian McIver, current Derry director of football and former Championship winning coach
  • Frank McLeigh whom looks after all Down Emerging Talent GAA sides among other sides
  • Cormac Venney whom is both an Elite Inter County GAA coach and offers Sport Psychology support for Ulster Rugby Academy sides
  • Willie Anderson, former Irish international second row, assistant coach of Leinster and Scottish national side; currently coaching as part of Ulster Rugby Academy structure
  • Sigerson Cup winning coach with St Marys Belfast, Paddy Tally whom has previously coached GAA senior sides including 2003 Championship winning side Tyrone, 2010 finalists Down and Derry
  • Matt Wilkie; current Head of Coach Development at Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU)

Some of the main questions and areas I wanted to look around included different tactics and methods for athlete engagement in different sports and ways these high-performance coaches offered autonomy supportive methods and ways to develop players while developing their own practices in elite atmospheres.

Sitting down first with Brian, Frank and Cormac, we discussed the recent stats provided by Club Players Association addressing player dropout (see one of my previous blog posts), talking about how players have changed, creating a necessity for improved player-coach relations and changes to traditionalist ideas to occur. As I posed ideas including acknowledging the challenge of successful coaching is recognizing social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them, they called upon examples faced within high performance amateur sport such as player's professional and family lives and the supportive, flexible roles they must adapt to support different circumstances.  These high-level coaches all acknowledged the importance of coaching the individual, recognizing players as a person and all eluding to autonomy supportive practices and expressing elements of self-determination ideas for player engagement and involvement in decisions for sports practices with Cormac mentioning ideas from Google's supportive and inclusive ideas and his application into sporting atmospheres.


As mentioned, I was fortunate to shadow Willie Anderson, who allowed me to question methods and reasoning for choices made in live sessions. Again, like previous coaches, I found him to be extremely athlete focused and autonomy supportive to player decisions and actions. He frequently used questioning and player involvement for decisions in his drive to make players "warriors as well as winners". He discussed the importance of delegating to other coaching staff and players; he echoed like I regularly mention to the players I coach, "once they step over the paint, it is all down to them", supporting them to make decisions and drive player autonomy for how and why they play. He drew upon a document drafted by former National Coach Development Manager for IRFU, Stephen Aboud, talking about the importance of creating a positive environment for the players to grow and constantly reviewing his own performance through a 360-degree process, addressing abilities to plan, align plans and empower.

On having a coffee with Paddy Tally, I again was immensely caught up in his passion for coaching and desire to share his beliefs and understand ideas from other sports and practices also. One of the most powerful quotes offered when speaking of entering a new yet highly resourceful county side was:

If they want coffee, give it to them sugar, no cream; let's see how much they want it.

At first, it came across as quite an authoritarian approach; however, akin to all the excellent coaches spoken with over the past few weeks, he showed he was trying to remind players of their passion and drive like when they initially adopted the sport. Similar to Eddie Jones' beliefs displayed at ICCE Conference, he wanted them to embrace the professional attitude towards training with the amateur's ideals of enjoyment and love for the game. Paddy talks about the "buy in culture" he assists developing through encouraging genuine friendships within the teams he's involved in, supported by a culture of honesty among all those involved. He also encourages greater player autonomy and engagement through functional training and scenario based sessions and games, developing player's decisions under pressure while encouraging them to play, chase and win the game, forever learning lessons throughout.

Discussing similar areas with a person in charge of coach development, I was fortunate to discuss ideas and applied strategies with Matt Wilkie. We discussed how we felt coaching within different hemispheres had become very content based and how he was implementing ideas to offer a greater focus on coaches for how they coach and why for greater impact among players of all capabilities. Introducing and applying principles such as cueing (language), constraints based coaching and ideas from Basic Psychological Needs Theory, whereby coaches and players alike understand the concept of evolved psychological needs and their relations to psychological health and well-being, predicated on autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which shall offer greater understanding for higher levels of commitment for game involvement for coaches and players alike. He discussed ways in which he could create avenues for coaches to turn to and progressively discuss ideas and practices through communities of practice and online techniques and strategies to break down traditionalist ideas and coaching rigidity within rugby union.

Combining these discussions with high-performance coaches in Irish sport alongside notes from presentations in Liverpool's International Council for Coaching Excellence conference, there is a definite acknowledgment towards player awareness and autonomy alongside tactical periodization where coaches and programs are structured to meet both player needs and sports expectations. But, in my opinion, where are possible areas of improvement for coach adaptability and learning opportunities? One immediate avenue of opportunity would be the introduction of communities of practice between sports; gathering ideas, effective adopted practices and even cross code reviews to develop understanding and add value from other avenues. I believe we have become very content focused and over analytical towards how we believe and perceive players within team sports SHOULD be played, coached and reviewed. However, with this, we have lost the concept of acknowledging the social and interactive side to coaching; offering ideas, choices and solutions to scenarios which may be sport applicable or just socially responsible when required for all players and coaches involved to collaboratively overcome and improve.

How does this resonate in your sport currently? I'd love to hear your thoughts towards this article....